TO Jazz Festival: Review of the Stanley Clarke Band featuring Hiromi, with the Dave Young Quartet opening the show – blogUT

On Monday night, I squeezed into a horribly uncomfortable, plastic seat down at Nathan Phillips Square to enjoy what can only be described as a fabulous evening of jazz music, albeit with lame acoustics. The Dave Young Quartet opened the evening with local jazz piano virtuoso Robi Botos, Botos’s brother Frank on drums, Kevin Turcotte on trumpet, and band leader Dave Young on bass. The group played a solid set which included “Me and the Boys” by Coleman Hawkins, “Mean What You Say”, Cole Porter’s “Dream Dancing”, and a very beautiful Danish folksong. The band was at its best when Dave Young and Robi Botos took centre stage, either with the melody or their melodious solos. These two are very talented Canadian musicians, staples of the Toronto jazz scene and for good reason.

After intermission, the high energy Stanley Clarke Band featuring Hiromi took the stage by storm with Clarke on electric and acoustic bass, Hiromi on a Yamaha grand piano, Ruslan Sirota on keyboards, and Ronald Bruner Jr on drums. Clarke started out the evening with some electric bass, which proves that if he were a less serious musician he could have been a seriously big-time rock star: he’s cool, he’s assured, and he’s incredibly good. Clarke took good advantage of the portability of the electric bass to move around the stage and play some great call and response music with each of his musicians, standing up close to them, one by one, and jamming.

At the end of the first piece, an audience member shouted out “You’re the king, Stanley” and Clarke responded “I’m just a bass player, that’s all”. But he is the king, not because he can be a rock star, but because of his incredible talent and skill on the bass. He is a one-of-a-kind bass player who can take the melody and have it work, who can play at the top and the bottom of the piece, and who can make melodic music with just a few notes. Of course, his mastery is best show-cased on what is thankfully his preferred instrument, the acoustic bass. After the first piece, much to my surprise and glee, Clarke set aside his electric bass in favour of the acoustic bass, and moved us into some middle ground between jazz and jazz fusion, but far enough away from pure fusion that I was happy. It was especially a treat to hear some pieces from the “Jazz in the Garden” album such as Clarke’s “Paradigm Shift (Election Day)”.

The group then went on to play a Return to Forever piece, which was even better than the first piece and featured a truly memorable drum solo by Bruner. When he lost his first drum stick during the solo, Clarke turned to him and said “you lost your drumstick! WOW!”. And then the comedy routine began: in the middle of his solo he starts beating the drum with his foot so that his hands are free to take a drink and wipe his face. Once he’s using both hands again, with a new soon-to-be-lost drumstick, he starts beating the drums in a regular pattern. As the pattern becomes familiar, Bruner encourages the audience to clap along, when he decides to mischeviously skip a beat as though to say to us “hah! got you! didn’t play that note!”.

There were some sound troubles involving painful feedback which deafened the keyboardist and was really annoying Mr Clarke, so we took a break to fix the sound.

When the music got going again it was at its peak. Clarke and Hiromi are the real stars of the band and we really see them shine when they play together and each take their own solos.  These musicians are so in tune with each other that every note fits, every rhythm jives, and every second is musical.

Every time Clarke took a solo it was breathtaking. As I was watching him really slap that bass in a way I’ve never seen anyone play the bass before, I would glance back and forth at his band members and what I saw was sheer joy on Hiromi and Sirota’s face: they were just as blown away by Clarke as the audience was. And their smiles were infectious. Watching these musicians enjoy themselves onstage while they made music just made the already good music that much more engaging.

Stanley Clarke is the master of tension and release which makes it hard to do anything but get engaged and concentrate on the music. His music always melodic, in a way I’ve never heard the bass be melodic, and it’s infused with life and urgency. When I interviewed Joshua Redman, he commented that “jazz has a built in modernity and relevance through improvisation”, and the full meaning of that statement comes to light when watching Clarke solo and do joint solos with his bandmates.

The other star of the concert was Hiromi, an incredibly talented pianist whose well-refined jazz piano has such melodic force: it’s hard to believe she’s only thirty and can only just reach an octave. I’m not sure I’ve ever seen fingers move that quickly on a piano. As Hiromi told me in an interview before the festival “It requires a lot of practicing to be able to play the right notes, but I want to hear the sound and so I work hard to hear the sound.”  Her technique is impeccable but praising that alone would hardly do this musician credit. Hearing Hiromi play is like hearing a young, modern-day Oscar Peterson, but with her own personal and wonderful flare.

Clarke closed the concert by returning to the electric bass, which seemed to be a real audience pleaser. Don’t get me wrong, he’s wonderful on the electric bass, but sometimes the electric bass is about making noise. Clarke can make noise perfectly well but what makes him a standout bassist is his ability to turn the bass-line into melody and into music. When they finished their last piece and left the stage, someone came promptly onto the stage to remove Clarke’s bass, which seemed a clear signal that no encore was to be had. But a well-deserved prolonged standing ovation amazingly coaxed him back on stage for a solid encore. Overall, it was a great concert with enough jazz to please the real jazz fans, and enough rock-like flare to appease the fusion-obsessed.

Nevertheless, I can’t help thinking what a shame it is that these great musicians were put in such a terrible venue. The sound was loud and muddled making it often impossible to make out notes being played on the keyboard or hear Hiromi at all when she wasn’t solo-ing or duet-ing with Clarke. I was wearing drummers ear plugs the  whole time to fend off deafness while those with less tailored ear plugs were feeling their ears ringing. Great music deserves great acoustics. Toronto has so many fabulous venues that it seems a waste not to use them on this group for an already expensive concert ($40-50). But don’t let me being a curmudgeon deter you from seeing the Stanley Clarke Band featuring Hiromi live at the next opportunity, or for checking out “Jazz in the Garden” or the “Stanley Clarke Band”’s new album: the music speaks for itself and it has nothing but wonderful things to say.

Image from Stanley Clarke’s flickr stream.

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